Deep Thoughts at the WHA

The first week of our practicum trip to Geneva has flown by in a flurry of activity – coffee breaks with United Nations officials in the bustling Serpentine lounge, frantic note-writing in plenary sessions, delegate speeches from all over the world (as I listen in real-time translation through those highly-coveted UN headphones), and a plethora of top secret things that I simply can’t recount in such a public forum. I can speak for myself when I say that after five days of hobnobbing with powerful figureheads, I feel like quite the well-connected, savvy public health professional…. but in reality, the learning curve was steep, the days were long, and it’s now time to organize the many thoughts that have been floating – no, FLYING – around my cranium. Exposure to the many sectors represented at this Conference of all Conferences opened a door to the complex web of connections that exists between policy, advocacy, government, the private sector, and a plethora of other groups with varied interests and roles. Trying to connect the many dots is making my head spin – how can I possibly compartmentalize what I’ve learned, triage the facts and philosophies relayed to me, whittle the mountain of information into a relevant topic for my practicum project? I suppose I can leave all of that for later – one last opportunity to procrastinate as a graduate student – and spend today reflecting on my overall experience and the major themes that emerged along the way.

One of the most thought-provoking interactions I participated in this week was a discussion our MPH group was lucky enough to have with Doug Webb, of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). A number of thoughtful insights were offered, but my interest was truly piqued when the conversation shifted to human rights and the ever-elusive balance between regulation and respect for the cultural norms and standards of the UN/WHO member countries. There is an inherent struggle when trying to protect populations, whether from bad policy, corruption, unhealthy environmental factors, or other issues of similar gravity; the boundaries are often fuzzy between “right” and “wrong,” “human rights violation” and “widely-accepted tradition.” How much power should an umbrella governing body have when it comes to international rule-setting? What role does the UN or WHO really play when it comes to setting standards? Is it possible to tread lightly and respect the unique values of individual nations when making broad, overarching regulatory strokes? And finally, is it more productive in the long run to passively encourage the herd to move in a certain direction or aggressively enact compulsory rules that members are required to follow? What options exist that are less extreme, but actually create tangible change?

While I recognize my “newbie” status in the realm of high-level global health decision making, I still continue to enjoy engaging in discussion and/or internal monologues that dissect existing policy challenges and attempt to re-invent the wheel in exciting new ways. As a fresh set of eyes and ears that is just entering the sacred inner circle of public healthers, perhaps my innovative perspective and healthy level of curiosity will lead to the best and brightest solutions the WHO has ever seen! Okay, maybe not – but I can dream, can’t I? In the meantime, I’m set on enjoying the second leg of our trip, which will be chock full of tours, interviews, and inevitably an all-nighter next Thursday as I rush to prep for my competency/deliverables presentation the next day. Cross your fingers for me, folks!